What Does Ecumenical Mean in Christianity? Is the Ecumenical Movement Biblical?

A definition of ecumenical is: “of or referring to or representing the whole of a body of churches or trending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation,” according to Merriam-Webster. Another interpretation of the modern Ecumenical Movement seeks to promote a type of unity Christian unity, as described in the Bible, with those of other non-Christian faiths. This ecumenism propounds the idea of universalism in which everyone will go to heaven, believing in Jesus or not.
Candice Lucey
What Does Ecumenical Mean in Christianity? Is the Ecumenical Movement Biblical?

A definition of ecumenical is: “of or referring to or representing the whole of a body of churches or trending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Ecumenism, or the Ecumenical Movement, aims to, “recover the apostolic sense of the early church for unity in diversity,” as Britannica said, by dealing with the “frustrations, difficulties, and ironies of the modern pluralistic world. It is a lively reassessment of the historical [church] and destiny of what followers perceive to be the one, holy, and apostolic church of Jesus Christ.”

Another interpretation of the modern Ecumenical Movement seeks to promote a type of unity Christian unity, as described in the Bible, with those of other non-Christian faiths. This ecumenism propounds the idea of universalism in which everyone will go to heaven, believing in Jesus or not.

Christian Unity in the Bible

Paul and the other apostles longed for an ecumenical church, “worldwide Christian unity,” even though they used other words to get their message across. The theme of unity is richly represented throughout the epistles, both directly and indirectly as a response to disunity.

Believers followed various teachers as they spread out around the Roman Empire teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel message didn’t change, even if their styles differed.

A problem arose, however, as written in 1 Corinthians 1:12 and explained by Blue Letter Bible:

“People in the church were associating with various leaders and making factions that were tearing down the body of Christ.” They were taking “pride in their pastoral preference,” forgetting that “God is the one that does the work in the church.” He is the one who “should receive the devotion of the church.”

The New Testament epistles are full of reminders about the dangers of disunity and importance of being a unified body of Christ, giving glory to the Father.

Scriptures on the Dangers of Disunity

- Paul talks about “jealousy and strife” (1 Corinthians 3:3) among followers.

- Jesus had already told his followers that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).

- Jude, a brother of Jesus, reminds followers of Christ’s by warning: “in the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires. These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit” (Jude 18-19).

Scriptures on Importance of Unity

- Christ said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father” (Matthew 5:16).  

- He also said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

- “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

- “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

- “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8).

Christian Unity as a Witness

Although division was a problem in the church even from the start, onlookers and unbelievers often noticed their unity. Cold-Case Christianity stated, “Early observers of the [Christian] movement recognized” agreement between believers which “became the unifying force behind the movement of God.” The appeal of agreement between believers was critical to glorifying God and spreading the Gospel.

Members of the Roman Empire in the decades following Christ’s death recognized that “to be part of the Christian community [...], to be part of the church, is to belong to a society of closely-knit friends, brothers and sisters and Christ,” L. Michael White told Frontline.

Disunity throughout Church History

The issue of disunity among churches began to take hold almost from the beginning.

“There have been more than a few divisions in the church over the last couple of thousand years,” Ed Stetzer wrote at Christianity Today. But, “in a spirit battle [] conflict is to be expected,” he said. Division, while normal, can be “overcome with unity” along the lines of “a Holy-Spirit led understanding of scripture,” Stetzer said. Christ is the leader of the church, not the current leader of a city, country, or Empire. We can disagree, but the basis for truth will never change.

Division in Christian Doctrine – Unity in the Gospel

Throughout church history, major doctrinal causes of disunity were addressed by councils, and the doctrinal error was often corrected by reiterating gospel truth in a creed or statement, such the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed was, as this source stated, “originally formulated in 325 at the council of Nicaea” by church leaders in answer to the “Arian heresy.” Arians “denied that Christ was truly God,” teaching instead “that he was a created being.” The creed […] clearly states that Christ is eternal and part of the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Disunity among Christian Denominations – Unity in Christ

Divisions over essential parts of Christian belief continued in the subsequent centuries and are still prevalent today. Laying basic tenets of Christian teachings side-by-side, one sees variations in relation to baptism, the Trinity, and more.

For example, according to a Religion Facts chart:

- One group of Lutherans believes Scripture is “inspired and inerrant” while another believes Scripture is “inspired but not inerrant.”

- Meanwhile, Presbyterians say “the Bible is inspired,” but that means different things to different people. Perhaps it is inerrant and maybe not, but “even though the Bible is culturally conditioned and not necessarily factual or even always true, it breathes with the life of God."

- Methodists consider the Bible to be “inspired and inerrant in original manuscripts, […] transmitted to the present without corruption of any essential doctrine."

In the chart cited above, one might wonder how each group can differ on many issues, yet still qualify as a Christian denomination. Many Christian denominations agree on key beliefs about Jesus, that Jesus Christ was the only Son of God, divinely born as both God and man. And they agree on the Christian’s hope for eternity through salvation in Him.

Ephesians 4:3 and John 17:21 exhort followers to unite under Christ and the truth that He is the only way to God the Father. This Christian ecumenism resonates with the unity described in the Bible.  

What is the modern Ecumenical Movement?

Today, however, the modern Ecumenical Movement seeks to promote a type of unity and agreement which would widen what Jesus referred to as “the narrow gate” in Matthew 7:13. In this sense, “ecumenical” refers to agreement between all people of all beliefs and would dismantle the foundations of Christian ecumenism.

An ecumenism that seeks Christian unity, as described in the Bible, with those of other non-Christian faiths propounds the idea of universalism in which everyone will go to heaven, believing in Jesus or not. In this case, agreement over salvation by grace through Christ is pushed aside in favor of a more popular message.

What’s wrong with the Ecumenical Movement?

1. Jesus never sacrificed God’s message for popularity.

Not long after feeding a crowd of thousands and teaching about the cost of following Him, most followers fell away. Only the disciples remained (John 6:66-67).

Also, He enraged Nazarenes in the synagogue by preaching something they did not want to hear, so they tried to throw Him from a cliff (Luke 4:24-30).

2. In pursuit of tolerance and cooperation, key Christian doctrine is easily lost.

Participants of this movement are in danger of echoing an “all roads lead to God” mantra, which would draw them away from “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) in order to nurture tolerance and cooperation between popular opinion of all religions.

Jack Wellman argued on Patheos: “When essential doctrines of the faith are compromised and certain elements of the faith are sacrificed for the sake of unity then the things lost are of greater consequence than those things gained.”

3. Lost people are led to believe they’ll reach heaven without Jesus.

In the past century, many clergy have argued for a more inclusive form of Christianity, arguing that gospel truth turns people off; Christians must be more inclusive if they are to serve the needs of their local and global communities. While Christians must serve others regardless of beliefs, Christians should not compromise the truth of the gospel.

Michael J. McClymond, author of The Devil's Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, said in an interview with The Gospel Coalition that “universalism” addresses “the way that many religiously believing people—and contemporary academic theologians especially—would like for the world to be.” The problem with these universalist sentiments linked to the Ecumenical Movement is that not everyone is going to heaven. “It would be spiritually hazardous to tell those who have consciously rejected Christ that beyond the present life there will be further opportunities to respond to Christ—opportunities of which Scripture says nothing,” McClymond said.

Candice Lucey lives with her husband and daughters in (mostly) tranquil Salmon Arm, BC, Canada. Here, she enjoys digging into God’s word when not working or taking part in ministry activities. Her prose and poetry has previously appeared in such publications as Purpose and Creation Illustrated, and her short plays were performed at Christmas by Sunday School students for several years. Catch up with Candice’s scriptural studies at her blog Wordwell.ca.

Photo Credit:Getty/LuckyTD


Originally published July 22, 2019.